Are Canada’s farm organizations actually listening to their members?

Amid the falling commodity prices and rising input costs, one question is getting louder. Who do our farm organizations really represent?

The last few years have been tumultuous for Canadian grain farmers, especially in the West. Not only have we seen the end of the single-desk CWB monopoly, but we also watched as Ottawa passed Bill C-18, the Agriculture Growth Act (which included the approving UPOV 91) and as major changes were made to AgriStability.

Farmers complain about poor rail movement of grains too, and we are worried about Canada’s reputation as a reliable supply of high-quality grains.

Yet we also have groups, organizations and associations on opposite sides of each of these questions, each claiming to represent the opinion of the majority of grain growers.

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How can this be?

We need to ask, are the organizations that claim to represent farmers actually listening to their members? If not, who are they listening to?

Did the farm groups actually represent their grassroots membership in the debate over the privatization of the CWB? Or, more recently, were the positions of farmers and farm organizations really aligned with taking our former Plant Breeders Rights in the direction of UPOV 91?

There are other troubling questions too, such as whether these groups feel that if farmers knew as much about today’s complex issues as the groups know, we’d endorse what the groups are doing. It’s the familiar “Trust us, we know better” argument.

Worse yet, could it be that farmers really don’t know the organizations that claim to represent them? Or are farmers so divided that there is simply no consensus possible, so farm groups are free to support any position they choose, knowing there will always be some farmers they can claim to represent?

These questions led me to poll the farm groups, asking them who they represent, and what are their positions on the issues facing farmers today.

The answers won’t shock you, but it’s worth paying close attention to the nuances.

I should also explain that I began this exercise by trying to identify all the groups claiming to represent farmers. However, in Alberta where I farm, a quick check proved this would be an impossible task. The 2015 directory lists 530 agricultural associations and organizations in my province alone

Even when agricultural societies, livestock associations, and municipal districts and counties were excluded, there were still more organizations than could be covered in the pages of this magazine. So instead, I decided to pose seven questions to the agricultural organizations that I thought are probably most familiar to most farmers.

It’s arbitrary, but I selected farm groups that have a high public profile and have been mentioned in mainstream media recently.

Following are condensed answers I received from 11 farm organizations. I hope you will use them to judge not only your knowledge of these organizations but also how their positions may compare to other organizations you may belong to.

I urge all readers to get to know the organizations which claim to represent your views.

Voluntary organizations

Voluntary is the key word here, with individuals typically paying a membership fee to meet the organization’s funding needs. These groups can range from regional commodity associations to national general farm organizations. For example, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association has 450 members (97 per cent are farmers), and it describes itself as a “voluntary farm advocacy organization dedicated to developing policy solutions that strengthen the profitability and sustainability of farming and the agricultural industry as a whole.”

WCWGA seeks open and competitive markets, an efficient grain-handling and transportation system, science-based environmental and food safety policies, the elimination of production-distorting subsidies and the removal of barriers to market access.

WCWGA achievements include grain marketing freedom for Prairie farmers, modernization of Plant Breeder Rights, including the adoption of UPOV 91, elimination of KVD criteria for registration of new wheat varieties, and the expansion of the rail interswitching limit from 30 to 160 km.

National Farmers Union is a 100 per cent farmer, direct-membership organization with a goal of developing economic and social policies to maintain the family farm as the primary food-producing unit in Canada. It is funded by its membership fees and voluntary donations.

The NFU considers its most important achievement to be “our continued ability to bring together the voices of farmers of all kinds and sizes — from small CSA operations to large grain farms, organic and conventional, all across Canada…”

It also says, “The NFU succeeds by bringing its members’ views and priorities into the public discussion of agricultural issues in Canada.”

Alberta Federation of Agriculture is the province’s largest producer-funded general farm organization. Its 250 members represent nearly 1,000 farm families, and 95 per cent of the membership is from the farm. The other five per cent consists of commodity organizations, associations and non-profits.

The federation says it is dedicated to advocating, promoting and encouraging a sustainable agricultural industry with viable farm income levels; healthy rural communities with an outstanding quality of life for our families; fair marketing and trade practices; and a strong value-added industry in rural Alberta.

AFA has spearheaded the development of risk management tools for farmers and was instrumental in addressing the grain transportation crisis and pushing the federal government’s order-in-council to address the issue.

General farm organizations

Not all general farm organizations are voluntary. Saskatchewan and Manitoba have instituted two very different approaches for giving a voice to all farmers through a provincial general farm organization.

Keystone Agricultural Producers is Manitoba’s largest general farm policy organization, and it is funded by a checkoff at point of sale from roughly 4,000 producers. All members must be actively engaged in primary agricultural production.

The goal of KAP is “to ensure that primary production in Manitoba remains profitable, sustainable, and globally competitive.” Activities related to this goal have included lobbying for better rail movement of grains, removal of the education tax of farmland and buildings, working for improved producer-payment security, and easing restrictions on winter nutrient application. KAP has also promoted Manitoba agriculture through its Sharing the Harvest campaign.

Agricultural Producers of Saskatchewan is Saskatchewan’s voluntary general farm organization. It differs from other farm organizations in that its 98 members are the rural municipalities of Saskatchewan who in turn represent the nearly 18,000 agricultural producers in these RMs. There are 18 associate members who represent agricultural-related organizations. Almost all APAS funding comes from the RM membership.

“The goal of APAS is to provide a respected, unified voice that positively influences agricultural and rural communities to achieve a respected, thriving agricultural sector…” APAS has been able to obtain federal and provincial financial support for Saskatchewan farmers, and it is addressing the transportation issues.

Commodity organizations

These are legislated organizations for the purpose of increasing research, development, innovation, and market opportunities for a specific commodity. Most are funded primarily through a checkoff from the sales of that commodity, and all sellers are automatically members. However, in most cases the checkoff is refundable if you do not want to be a member.

Alberta Barley, for example, represents approximately 11,000 Alberta barley farmers who have paid the barley checkoff to Alberta Barley in one or more of the last three crop years. Its purpose is “to advance the interests of Alberta barley farmers through leadership and investment in innovation and development. Research and market development are currently Alberta Barley’s top priorities.”

Alberta Barley has applied for and received funding from government and industry. Besides research, some of this grant funding was used for developing materials for informing health professionals and dietitians about the health benefits of barley to increase demand. Alberta Barley has also created the GoBarley campaign to increase consumer demand.

Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission collects a $0.52/tonne checkoff from 24,000 wheat growers and uses this fund to grow the province’s wheat industry. “Our vision is to ensure wheat is a stable, sustainable, profitable, and internationally competitive crop; capturing the benefits for Saskatchewan farmers and the community.”

The commission focuses on three goals, including research to improve yields, quality, and agronomics; market development to increase value and marketability; and advocacy so the interests of Saskatchewan wheat growers are presented to government, industry, and the public.

Manitoba Corn Growers Association has been “designated to represent all corn producers in the province of Manitoba.” It too is funded by a refundable producer checkoff. Industry associate memberships are also available upon payment of an annual fee. There are currently 1,200 members with about 30 to 50 of these being associate members.

Some 80 per cent of the checkoff levy goes to research programs and work intended to encourage the growth of corn acres in Manitoba. This includes development of earlier corn hybrids and sound agronomic practices for growing corn in Manitoba.

Associations of associations

In many instances, provincial commodity organizations or other like-minded associations have created umbrella organizations to better represent the views of farmers and industry members or to participate in activities of interest to all groups instead of each provincial group repeating what another association is already doing.

The Canadian Canola Growers Association represents the interests of five provincial canola associations. It is the national voice of 43,000 Canadian canola growers, and it is funded through its own business operations, including acting as an administrator of the Advanced Payments Program for 45 field crop and livestock commodities.

The canola association’s primary role is to use its combined influence to enhance the profitability of Canadian canola growers. Besides the cash advance program, the CCGA is a strong advocate for a more responsive and effective rail system, and it works to increase international trade of canola products.

Cereals Canada is a new organization seeking to fill in the co-ordination and market development gaps resulting from the end of the CWB monopoly. It strives to ensure a profitable and vibrant future for all links in the grains value chain.

To do this, Cereals Canada represents 20 different organizations of producers, crop development and seed companies, and grain handlers, exporters, and processors. The organization will focus on market development, innovation, and industry leadership. The Team Canada sales teams are examples of the market development work Cereals Canada is doing.

Cereals Canada is trying to promote a common message across the value chain on issues such as grain transportation, variety registration, and the wheat classification review.

Grain Growers of Canada is another national umbrella organization of 14 grain, oilseed, and pulse groups representing more than 50,000 producers and it is funded primarily through the membership. The Grain Growers of Canada believes Canadian farmers are efficient, competitive and want to make their living from the marketplace. Therefore it focuses on maximizing the global competitiveness of Canadian farmers by influencing federal policy. It strives for research into seed, value-added processing, and the bioproducts field. Its single most important achievement has been to see the end of the single desk, for which it advocated since its formation.

This article was originally entitled “Who speaks for farmers?” in the May/June issue of Country Guide

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